One day, truth will come out

September 25, 2011


2000: Frank Lee Smith is posthumously exonerated — he’d died 11 months earlier — 14 years after being convicted of raping and murdering an 8-year-old girl. The eyewitnesses were wrong.

2001: Charles Fain is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a young girl. The scientific testimony was wrong.

2002: Ray Krone is exonerated and set free 10 years after being sentenced to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a bar worker. The scientific testimony was wrong.

2003: John Thompson is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for murder. The prosecutors hid exculpatory scientific evidence and the eyewitnesses were wrong.

2004: Ryan Matthews is exonerated and set free five years after being sentenced to death for killing a convenience store owner. The eyewitnesses were wrong.

2008: Kennedy Brewer is exonerated and set free seven years after being sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend’s 3-year-old daughter. The scientific testimony was wrong.

2010: Anthony Graves is exonerated and set free 18 years after being sentenced to death for the murder of an entire family. The sole eyewitness — who was himself the murderer — lied.

I could make a much longer list.

There are literally hundreds of men, and even a few women, who have been exonerated and set free after being sentenced to death, life, 25, 60, even 400 years for awful things they did not do. I could make a longer list, but space is at a premium and there is more that needs saying here.

They killed Troy Davis on Wednesday night.

He went to his death still proclaiming his innocence of the 1989 murder of a Savannah, Ga., police officer. Davis was convicted on “evidence” that boiled down to the testimony of nine eyewitnesses, seven of whom later recanted.

But Spencer Lawton, who originally prosecuted the case, would not want you to worry your head about that. Hours before Davis was put to death, Lawton was quoted by CNN as saying he had no doubts about the case and was confident Davis was the killer. How much do you want to bet the prosecutors of Fain, Brewer, Krone or any of those hundreds of others would have said the same thing, expressed the same confidence? Without that confidence, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

Meaning the death penalty, a flimsy edifice erected on the shaky premise that we always get it right, that human systems always work as designed, that witnesses make no mistakes, that science is never fallible, that cops never lie, that lawyers are never incompetent.

You have to believe that. You have to make yourself believe it. Otherwise, how do you sleep at night? So of course a prosecutor speaks confidence. What else is he going to speak? Truth? Truth is too big, too dangerous, too damning. Truth asks a simple question: in what field of endeavor have we always gotten it right? And you know the answer to that.

So truth is too pregnant for speaking. Better to avert your eyes and profess your confidence.

But one day, too late for Troy Davis, too late for too many, truth will out.

Godspeed that day the cards come tumbling down.

Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on www.MiamiHerald.com.


jhawkinsf 6 years ago

Every human endeavor has an element of risk that we might be wrong. The death penalty has a certain risk, but so too does keeping convicted murders alive. I recall a case in California where a man was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He subsequently conspired to commit additional murders of those who testified against him. Those murders were carried out. So keeping him alive carried some risk. A quick execution might of protected his future victims or it might have denied him the chance at being exonerated in the future. It's a risk. In Texas a few years ago, a group of men escaped and murdered a police officer. Those convicted of murder have killed fellow inmates and on occasion, they've killed guards. It's a risk either way. I actually have no problem if we were to eliminate the death penalty and go to a system of life without the possibility of parole. What I don't think it will accomplish though is eliminating risk. Both policies are human endeavors and both carry some risk.

jafs 6 years ago

We don't actually have "quick" executions, given the length of appeals, etc. in death penalty cases.

And, speeding that process up seems that it would only make it more likely that innocent people are executed.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

You missed the point. A quick execution would increase the risk of an innocent person being executed but would decrease the risk that a guilty person would commit another murder. So it evens itself out. Conversely, a much delayed execution decreases the chances of us executing a person who is innocent but increases the chances that guilty people would commit more murders, again evening itself out. My point is that there is risk involved either way. I sure hope I said that correctly.

Linda Endicott 6 years ago

I'll bet you wouldn't think it was worth the "risk", or that everything "evens itself out" if the one being executed was you, or one of your loved ones...

"Evens itself out"...what a quaint way of taking about human life and how expendable you apparently think it is...

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

It's human lives on both sides of the equation. But if you're saying all lives are equal, well let me just point out that on one side of the equation is a person who has been convicted of a capital crime, a person who had their day in court and was found guilty by a jury of their peers. A person who had a presumption of innocence and a person who had the deck stacked in their favor going into that court. Even with all that, mistakes will be made. But they will be rare. On the other side of the equation we have innocent bystanders. We have prison guards who just came to work that morning. Or we have civilians who simply encountered an escapee. Or another prisoner who ran afoul of a fellow inmate. It is unfortunate that people choose to kill other people. What to do with these dangerous people is a dilemma.

jafs 6 years ago

You have to also consider the source of the killing, as voevoda points out.

For us, as a society, to collectively choose to kill somebody who is innocent seems particularly terrible to many of us.

Also, prison guards are people who knowingly take a dangerous job, and other prisoners are other "criminals". They're both in a different category, in your world, I would think, than the guy who works at a gas station and gets killed.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

"for us, as a society, to collectively choose to kill someone who is innocent" There's so much there. Remember, the person lost their presumption of innocence when the jury said guilty. They are now presumed guilty. There's a huge difference there. Heck, a cop who kills someone in the line of duty poses a greater risk to our constitutional process. Yet we accept that risk as necessary in order to maintain a safe society. While tragic, we accept the risk. Should we ban the use of deadly force by the police? Not in my opinion. And remember, the person on the receiving end of that deadly force hasn't been convicted of anything. I still think it's a balancing of risks.

jafs 6 years ago

Presumptions are not reality.

How many innocent civilians are you willing for the police to kill in the pursuit of their duty? And, how little oversight should there be of them?

I think that the police, by virtue of having the right to use deadly force, should be subject to much oversight, and that we shouldn't accept "collateral damage" easily there at all.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

Absolutely correct. We should have substantial oversight of the use of deadly force by the police. And we do. And in the end, we have some type of closure, either the shooting was justified, thereby ensuring safety for society or the shooting was not justified and there will be appropriate consequences. The same is true with capital cases. We have enormous oversight. Decades of oversight. At what point in that very long process do we get closure?

"Presumptions are not reality" Which presumption are you talking about? The presumption of innocence people have prior to conviction or the presumption of guilt after conviction? Whatever one thinks, you must be consistent.

jafs 6 years ago

There are no truly appropriate consequences for an unjustified killing of a human being - the only way there could be would be that we could bring them back to life.

I was referring to your use of "presumed guilty" after convictions. Since innocent people are wrongly convicted, the presumption of guilt is not reality for all those convicted, or even all of those executed.

The "presumption of innocence" is not a claim that somebody is innocent of a crime, it is a principle that our society has determined we should follow in our criminal justice system, that the state has the burden of proof.

jafs 6 years ago

And, if you're talking about suspects being pursued, I still think that police should have to pass a high bar to justify the use of deadly force.

In fact, off the top of my head, I'd say it's only justified in defense of self or others.

voevoda 6 years ago

I don't consider the risks to be equal. You do seem to be assuming that the alternative to executing murderers is letting them go free to murder again. Not so; opponents of the death penalty don't favor releasing murderers. Even an executed murderer can leave orders for reprisal killings, so quick execution is no guarantee that witnesses are safe. Also, it's quite possible to restrict the access of a convicted murderer to external communication. Targets for reprisal killings can be protected in a variety of ways. Even if a reprisal killing takes place, the convicted felon is responsible for the crime, not the American justice system in the name of the People. But if an innocent person is executed, s/he is dead, and there is no possibility of righting that wrong. And we the people are responsible.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

I don't mean to suggest that they will be free to murder again. I'm just saying it's going to happen. And because we're dealing with people who have shown that they are willing to commit murder, the chances that they will try to commit additional murders is relatively higher than in the population in general. And that that increased risk might outweigh the risk of a wrongful execution.
I am mildly in favor of the death penalty. But if we were to ban it, I wouldn't be all up in arms. I just think we should all understand that there is risk involved either way we decide to go.

jafs 6 years ago

Yes - I got your main point there - it was clear.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

I think it's amazing that many people who rant and rail against the death penalty are only worried about it here in the USA. In many foreign countries, the testimony of three witnesses is all it takes to get a death penalty conviction, there is no appeal at all, and the sentence is carried out immediately.

Think Sharia law, where sometimes execution for things that are not even crimes here is done by the method of burying a convicted party up to the waist or neck in sand, and then stones are thrown at the body until it is a bloody pulp.

I have been told second hand that it is very exciting and thrilling to be part of the crowd that is throwing stones and smashing someone's body to a bloody pulp. I wouldn't enjoy it at all, but I am a member of a modern European culture, and I think that most of us do not consider such activities enjoyable. But there is no doubt that some do.

But, the three witnesses required for a conviction all have to be Muslims, and they never get anything wrong, right? The testimony of Jews and Christians does not count at all.

I have often wondered how many people are against the death penalty and for the establishment of a Palestinian state. That position makes absolutely no logical sense at all, since Israel does not have a death penalty any more. It was only applied once in 1962 in the case of Adolf Eichmann and it has now been abolished.

If and when the new state of Palestine is established it will of course have the death penalty, and they do it very often at the moment anyway. And sometimes, without even the delaying problem that a trial presents.

P Allen Macfarlane 6 years ago


It's nice to know the we have raised our standards so low that we are in the same class as the countries of the Middle East.

It wasn't that long ago that we hung and burned individuals just because of the color of their skin.

Have a nice day.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

Did you notice that I wrote: "modern European culture"? I did not write "American culture", because many, but unfortunately not all, of our cultural standards are derived from European thought.

And did you know that the death penalty has been abolished in almost all European countries (48 out of 50)?

Linda Endicott 6 years ago

What about other countries? Well, I'm against the death penalty there, too...but I have no control over what goes on in other countries, and neither do you...

Since we are citizens here, we at least have the chance of being able to change things...

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

Think globally, act locally. - origin obscure

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

It might be appropriate to point out that the last execution in Kansas was carried out in 1965, which was 45 years ago. So, it has already been effectively abolished in Kansas although in theory it still remains possible.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

"That position makes absolutely no logical sense at all, since Israel does not have a death penalty any more."

Tell that to the thousands of Gazans (mostly non-combatants, and about 1/3 of whom were kids,) who were killed by Israel in their last invasion. Or maybe the thousands of Lebanese (again, mostly non-combatants) Israel killed just a couple of years before that.

Or maybe Rachel Corrie's family, along with the families of many other peaceful protestors murdered by the IDF.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

I have an idea! Quit shooting rockets at Israel!

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

I agree. But I expect I'll never hear you criticize Israel for slaughtering thousands of Gazans, Lebanese and other Arabs who stand in the way of the greater Israel, cleansed of all non-Jews. After all, this was the explicit, original goal of most Zionists, particularly espoused by David Ben-Gurion himself, and judging strictly from your wholly uncritical support of Israel you agree with him.

Even though he sought racial, ethnic and religious purity well beyond the pre- 1967 boundaries of Israel, (and well beyond the post-1967 boundaries, for that matter) he recognized that the Palestinians would resent and resist the theft of the lands they had held for the previous 700 years or more. But he believed the manifest destiny of Israelis trumped any obligation of fairness towards those he sought to displace, generally without mercy, much less compensation.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Bozo's wearing his "I hate Israel!" t-shirt again. Anything remotely Semitic...... watch out! Don't worry how tenuous the tie, just like here. Talkin' 'bout the death penalty and here comes the clown equivocating with combat. Briiiilliant as ever, like a squirting flower or a red rubber nose.
Never mind that the innocent death's are primarily the responsibility of those that first attacked Israel, but then basically used them as human shields with no regard for their brethren, but with full knowledge their death's would be luscious propaganda fodder for the weaker minded of our world. 'Ahem...um.. Send in the clowns.'

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 6 years ago

Jaywalker is wearing his "oh, must counter bozo" t-shirt again. Don't worry about making a well-supported argument, just puke out the same unsupported assertions as always, and be as sophomorically nasty as possible while doing it.

jaywalker 6 years ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Huh? Why was that comment deleted? For the use of "pal"?

Abdu Omar 6 years ago

Sharia law does not rule in Palestine or other democratic Middle Eastern countries. Iran uses it slightly but they have a different view than most. Stoning is not the usual way and was invented by Jews, not Muslims. Read your Bible.

jaywalker 6 years ago

Stoning was invented by Jews? Second chuckle of the day, gracias.

50YearResident 6 years ago

I have yet to see or hear of a man on death row admit that he was "guilty", I wonder why. Are the all "innocent" or are they lying through their teeth until the last day? If you never admit wrong doing, maybe over the years some evidence will be lost or wittnesses will die. It's a roll of the dice! I am innocent, I am innocent say the guilty ones.

tomatogrower 6 years ago

"The switch from concrete to asphalt is intended to help the new highway endure as it passes over Pleasant Grove Hill, a shifting mound of soil that already delayed the massive construction project 12 months so that the exposed earth could settle."

Timothy McVeigh was pretty proud of what he did.

ST3V3N 6 years ago

Yes and so was Lawrence Russell Brewer (white supremacist ) who was executed the same day as Troy Davis.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

"I have yet to see or hear of a man on death row admit that he was "guilty""

Christian Michael Longo, Ted Bundy, Danny Rolling, Billy Frank Vickers, Timothy McVeigh.

Now you have.

But, it is true that for psychiatric reasons that are not well understood, some people will "confess" to crimes when there is no doubt they did not commit them.

50YearResident 6 years ago

What deterrant is there in the penalty of Life with no chance of parole. Websters Dictionary: If you commit murder, we will give you free housing, free food, free clothes, free health care, freedom from taxes and free intertainment for the rest of your life? Something is wrong here.

jafs 6 years ago

That argument would apply to all crimes then.

So why incarcerate people at all?

50YearResident 6 years ago

Have you ever visited some of the dungens in Italy or other countries in Europe? Make prison life a deturent and there will be less incentive to commit crimes.

jafs 6 years ago

Something in the constitution about "cruel and unusual punishment" I think.

Linda Endicott 6 years ago

If the death penalty was such a great deterrent against murder, then why do murders still occur?

The death penalty is no deterrent...because criminals always think they won't be caught...and if they are, that some miracle will happen and they won't be executed anyway...

I personally believe that the death penalty is a barbaric and inhumane practice...being wrong only once is one time too many...especially if the convicted person was someone you loved...

And by putting people to death who are believed to have killed someone, even if it's true, we only prove that we are just as heinous as they are...

50YearResident 6 years ago

It can not be a deterrent if it takes 20 years to be carried out. Make it happen in 30 days and then see how effective it is.

Linda Endicott 6 years ago

Wasn't that how it was in the wild west days?

Can't see that it had that much effect then, either...

jafs 6 years ago

And so much for "due process".

Cait McKnelly 6 years ago

I'm against the death penalty but not for moral reasons. I'm against it for financial reasons. Feeding, housing and clothing someone in confinement for thirty or forty years until they die a natural death is cheaper than what 20+ years of appeals and counter appeals cost the state.
Consider this: No one has been executed in Kansas since 1965. The DP in Kansas was temporarily suspended due to a constitutional challenge. It was reinstated in 1994. It was again challenged and again reinstated in 2004. As of 2009 (the latest I could get info for) there were 9 people on Death Row. (If Kahler is, indeed, given the DP there will be a tenth.) Capital cases are automatically appealed on behalf of the prisoner by state law. According to a report issued by the state, itself, the cost to the state of a capital case is 70% more than the cost of a non-capital case. This includes feeding, housing, clothing and health care of the prisoner until date of death or release. On a moral level I am not against the death penalty. I believe that there are people who have committed such heinous acts that, in that commission, they have given up their right to be called "human" and need to be put down like the rabid animals they are, both for their sake and the sake of society.

Flap Doodle 6 years ago

Saw the title & thought this was about Dear Leader's college transcripts. Never mind.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

This would be quite an interesting article if that was the case, because exactly where Kim Jong-il received his education at is shrouded in the official obscurity of the North Korean government.

But, he is obviously a very important person. This is evidenced by this one facet among many of his illustrious life:

"Official biographers claim that his birth at Baekdu Mountain was foretold by a swallow, and heralded by the appearance of a double rainbow over the mountain and a new star in the heavens."

That was the first time anyone's birth was announced to the entire world by the appearance of a new star in the heavens for about two thousand years.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

For some reason it took me until now to realize that you are most likely referring to President Obama, instead of Kim Jong-il, who is officially known as "Dear Leader"!

Peacemaker452 6 years ago

The death penalty should be carried out at the time and place of the attempted crime, by the intended victim.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

If there is only an attempt at a crime, and therefore the victim survives, I don't think the death penalty is carried out very often.

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

I recall a case a number of years ago. A man kidnapped a young girl, under a year old. He then raped the girl. Afterward, in an attempt to dispose of her, he threw her out of a moving car. Miraculously, she survived. He escaped the death penalty precisely because of that, he's ineligible for capital punishment because no murder was committed, though it was clearly attempted. His "Incompetence" saved him. I wonder if he's still alive, in some prison. And I wonder how many schools could have been built, or teachers hired, or how many counselors we could have trained to heal the wounds people like him inflict, if would have invested a dollar for a bullet and ended his custody quickly.

50YearResident 6 years ago

For $2.50 and a .22 we can get rid of 50 offenders.

Ron Holzwarth 6 years ago

Don't worry about that. The government can just raise taxes to cover the cost of feeding and housing him.

jafs 6 years ago

Heck, why not just kill all of them?

Where do you draw the line, if it's no longer necessary to actually kill somebody to get the death penalty?

jhawkinsf 6 years ago

It reminds me of the quote from the supreme court justice, when trying to define what is obscene, I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.

jafs 6 years ago

Sure - and that's equally unsatisfactory when discussing public policy.

Mike Ford 6 years ago

I had the good fortune? of having a former neighbor in Southwest Topeka kill his wife and rape and kill his stepdaughter in 1996. They wanted to use the Death Penalty but he plea bargained to 83 years and died 15 months into his sentence at 42 years of age. I had two classmates of a younger sibling become enforcers for a drug dealer and when the collection of money went wrong they took the gun from the debtor shot him and cut him into about ten pieces. They found his head near Grantville and the rest of him on the banks of the Wakarusa south of Topeka. Then Kansas AG Carla Stovell wanted the Death penalty for these kids both of whom graduated high school. One got out after six years for accessory to 2nd degree murder and the other one is eligible for release in 2019. Zealous Kansans want punitive punishment like their good bible says... they just don't want to pay for appeals being the cheap people they are... oh well...I was thinking of the hate in comments and I thought of Snap... oh well....

jaywalker 6 years ago

So the point of yet another ramble is......Kansans are cheap. I'd like the 30 seconds of my life it took to read that back, please.

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